Working in publishing: fifteen things you need to know

This is a talk I gave at the University of Lincoln on Wednesday 8th February. 

1.      It’s not all about editing…

Though almost every would-be publisher wants to work in editorial, there are plenty of other roles available that might be more suited to your skills (or which might offer you another way into the business): production, design, sales, or marketing, for instance.

And there are plenty of new types of job springing up all the time: of the four roles I had at Cambridge University Press – project developer, project manager, innovations manager, and social media and communities manager – the first two didn’t exist at the Press five years before I took on the role, and for the last two, I was the first person ever to have that job.

2.      … but you do need to know how to edit.

I’ve needed editing skills in every publishing role I’ve had, whether I’ve been editing a post from one of our authors when I ran the Cambridge University Press ELT blog, or testing a piece of educational software.  You need a good eye for detail and to know what makes writing work, and that starts with your CV and covering letter. If either of those contains typos or grammatical errors, your CV will be in the bin immediately. Publishing jobs get lots of applications, and throwing out applications with errors is one quick way to thin the pile down.

3.      It’s hard to get into, but worth it.

Five years ago, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with the then Random House HR Director Neil Morrison, who told us that for every entry level post at Random House, there were more than 250 applicants. Publishing is a notoriously hard business to get into, so you’ll need to be at your very best to get a job, but it’s most definitely worth it. In my thirteen years in the industry, I got to work closely with some authors I respected, read some excellent books long before they were published, and was lucky enough to work with some of the most creative, clever, and friendly people I’ve ever met.

4.      There’s more to life than trade publishing.

The academic publishing sector may be much less glamorous than trade, with all its bestsellers and famous authors, but there are plenty of jobs, and it’s a fascinating area to work in. Academic publishing went digital long before trade, and journals publishing has been almost entirely digital for years now. The sector has its own challenges – like Open Access, for instance – but it’s definitely worth widening your job search to consider it. (And ELT and Education too: particularly if you’ve any experience of teaching.)

5.      Digital skills will be important, whatever role you work in.

Few publishers these days have separate digital departments, but in every role, you’ll need to be able to work, and think, digitally. You won’t necessarily need hard coding skills, as publishers mostly outsource such roles, but you will need to have a digital attitude: to be able to think digitally, and to judge how digital tools can be used. And if you do have some basic coding skills, you can often use them to make your job easier and more efficient, by automating the duller elements of what you do.

6.      Teach yourself skills… and use them!

Your university may have access to online training tools like, but if not, then there are plenty of free opportunities to develop your skills online, enabling you to learn how to build a website, create an ebook, or edit video, for instance. If you want to teach yourself how to use a certain piece of software, then a search on YouTube will most likely find you videos that will cover all the things you’ll need to know. Or if you’re looking for something more theoretical or professional, why not try a massive open online course, or MOOC, offered by universities and companies like Udacity or Coursera. For most MOOCs, you only have to pay if you complete the course and want certification, so you’re not risking your own money upfront on something that may or may not prove useful.

Take advantage of these resources, and use them to build things that show off your skills. Five years ago, a friend of mine was looking for a role in the industry, and built herself a presentation that not only showed off her skills but built a compelling narrative around her desire to work in publishing: she had a job within weeks, and is now Agile Implementation Lead at Penguin: pretty impressive.

7.      Get yourself on Twitter…

Publishing MAs can be enormously useful, but Twitter is the best free publishing education there is. It enables you to find out what people in the industry are talking about, the articles they’re reading, the problems they’re facing, and the people they talk to.

It’s also a brilliant way to build up connections: 90% of the people I know in publishing, I first met via Twitter. It’s basically networking for shy people. It’s your opportunity to learn more about the industry, to find out what people in the roles you want to have actually do.

Use it to start conversations with those sorts of people; share and comment on things that they’ve tweeted, and you’ll soon find that people are following you back, and you can build your network.

And if you’re looking for people to follow, you can’t go wrong by starting with these two: @samatlounge and @jafurtado. Sam’s the Queen of publishing Twitter, knows everyone, and is wonderfully friendly; José is a one-man reading list of all the news you need to keep up with. If you follow @thebookseller too, you should be up to speed with all that’s going on within the industry (including job vacancies).

8.      … but be careful what you share.

Publishers may well look you up on social media when considering your application; make sure that your Twitter feed doesn’t contain any photos or statements that will embarrass you, and lock down your Facebook account: no prospective employer wants to see you at three in the morning, passed out and with writing all over your face.

9.      Join the SYP.

If you’re looking for a job in the industry, who better to offer you advice and support than people who’ve just been through that and found out what it takes? The Society of Young Publishers is full of twenty-something people either looking for their first publishing job or enjoying their first few years in the business. It holds an annual conference each year, which only costs around £20 for members, yet features many of the industry’s biggest names offering advice on how to build a publishing career. They offer plenty of social and networking events, and a friendly and supportive environment for anyone looking to join the industry – plus the opportunity to gain some relevant experience through joining the committee.

There are other publishing networks out there – particularly Byte the Book and Bookmachine – but the SYP is probably the best place to start.

10.  Don’t be exploited (by internships).

Publishing has an internship problem. Far too many publishers offer unpaid internships and expect applications to entry-level positions to have the sort of experience that can only be gained through interning. Things are beginning to improve, thanks to campaigns from people such as @bookcareers, and more publishers are now committing to paying interns at least minimum wage, but there’s still a problem.

If you do an internship, make sure it’s worth it: make sure that you’ll be learning about the industry rather than just getting on with the filing that nobody who gets paid can be bothered to do. And consider interning at that smaller publisher that perhaps you’d never heard of rather than the bigger companies. Not only are smaller publishers often so strapped for cash that they have some justification for taking on free labour, but they’re also more likely to be able to give you experience of a wider range of roles within the industry.

11.  Publishing has a problem with diversity, but it’s working to improve it.

If your industry expects new entrants to have experience of working in the industry, yet doesn’t pay interns, then it’s going to restrict its recruitment to anyone who can afford to work for free in London, and that’s a recipe for a monoculture of, as one industry commentator put it, ‘white middle-class women called Emma’. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Emmas; here’s one who’s doing rather well.)

There are industry initiatives that are trying to change this, offering paid internships only open to people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds. And the London-based academic publisher SAGE is currently offering a paid internship for university students from a BAME background; the deadline for applications is the end of February, and you can find out more here.

12. Show, don’t tell (on your CV and covering letter).

Would-be authors are often told to show, not tell, when writing about their characters, and the same advice applies to would-be publishers. It’s far more effective – and convincing – to show the person reading your CV what you’re capable of than just to state it. So, if you’ve taught yourself HTML or run the social media accounts for your university society, make sure that your CV and covering letter make it easy for the person reading it to see evidence of what you’ve done: include links (and make sure that they work!).

13. Freelancing is increasingly an option.

Increasingly, publishers are outsourcing work, particularly in editorial departments, and this is actually – and accidentally – making it easier to work in publishing for people who can’t, or prefer not to, do the traditional 9-to-5 office-based role. Since I left Cambridge University Press in May last year, I’ve copy-edited and proof-read a few books and articles, and run the social media accounts for an industry initiative. As with any publishing role, you’ll need some experience, so it may be easier to move into freelancing after you’ve spent some time in an office role, but it’s an increasingly viable option.

14. Publishers want to know more about their readers; can you help?

For decades, publishers didn’t really have to worry about getting to know their readers, as bookshops did that for them: publishers sold books to bookshops, and bookshops sold them to readers. Now that publishers have finally realised that it might actually be quite useful to know more about the people who buy their books, their biggest buyer, Amazon, stands between them and that data. That’s why social media are increasingly important to publishers, as they offer them an opportunity to talk directly to their readers and learn what makes them tick. Anything that you can do to show that you have connections to that audience will help make you appealing to a publisher, whether it’s a blog or a BookTube channel with plenty of subscribers.

15. Just say yes!

A few weeks after I’d started working as innovations manager, I was asked by my boss if I’d mind temporarily looking after a project that potentially involved collaboration with the Williams Formula One team. I jumped at the chance; I’d not been involved in the early stages of developing a product before, but it was something I’d always wanted to do, and this looked to be an exciting project. By taking it on at the concept stage, and demonstrating that I was capable of handling that stage effectively, I got to lead on a project that eventually won us a national award; I got to stand in the pit lane at Silverstone during final practice, teach classes of schoolchildren using the product, and even introduce driver Nico Rosberg to one particular class!

So, if someone asks you to take on a task that might develop your career, even if you’re not sure how you’re going to do it, just say yes. Don’t be afraid to say yes when you’re asked to do something outside your comfort zone: you can always work out how to do it later, and the skills you gain may serve you well in future – they may even set you off on an entirely new career.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Nyasha says:

    Great advice, thank you!

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